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The Girl From The Fiction Department: A Portrait of Sonia Orwell

posted on 08 Jan 2018

The Girl From The Fiction Department: A Portrait of Sonia Orwell by Hilary Spurling

Sonia Brownell became Sonia Orwell just two or three months before the author’s death and, until she herself died in 1980, was the executor and gatekeeper of the Orwell legacy. As such she has frequently come in for criticism and Orwell biographers have often been hostile or dismissive of her role, portraying her as difficult, self-centred and even greedy. Hilary Spurling is a biographer of impeccable pedigree who knew Sonia Orwell personally and who has written this book explicitly as a defence against this seemingly systematic trashing of her reputation. As a result, the person who emerges from these pages is a much more rounded figure but also, ultimately, a disappointed and, at times, disappointing person prone to impetuous gestures that don’t ever seem to really work out in her favour.

The title for the book is of course drawn from the way Winston Smith describes Julia, the woman with whom he is fatally fascinated in Orwell’s most famous novel, 1984. Sonia Brownell was the model for Julia in so far as it’s also possible to say that Winston Smith was a proxy for Orwell himself and the dynamics between the real-life couple were to some extent captured in their fiction equivalents.

Much of the cynicism targeted at Sonia arises, I think, from the state of Orwell’s body and mind when Sonia agreed to marry him. He was clearly dying from TB and with only a miraculous chance of survival Orwell was casting around for comfort, solace and someone to look after his son and his legacy once he was no longer around. At this point almost no single woman Orwell knew, however vaguely, was exempt from a marriage proposal and despite the fact that Sonia had turned him down at an earlier point in their relationship ( a time when Orwell was less critically ill), now when he was clearly dying, she said yes. Understandably, I think, some have questioned her motives and her integrity over that decision.

Spurling however is robust in her defence. She not only makes out a case that Sonia really believed she might be able to help Orwell to some sort of remission of his illness but that she really did have strong feelings for him. But in order to make that case she has to draw a portrait of Brownell prior to her meeting Orwell and also to describe the years after his death.

The person who emerges from this is a complex one. Probably the two most significant aspects of Sonia’s story are the fact that she was considered beautiful and that she also wanted to be a writer but found that route often closed to her. Given the social attitudes of the time, it’s more than possible that these two things were linked. Having had a very middle class, colonial upbringing and a spell in a finishing school in French-speaking Switzerland, Sonia essentially fell in love with the idea of being part of the literary and artistic set in London & Paris in the inter-war years. Starting off as an artist’s model she entered into a number of relationships and friendships that would last for most of her life and which would give her access to some of the most influential thinkers, writers, editors and artists of the day. Having tried her hand at writing and received a morale-crushing knock-back it soon became clear that her real talents lay in organising and editing and she became one of the most influential figures at the high profile magazine, Horizon. Her ability to manage an office and keep people on track was one of her more notable strengths.

To her credit I think Spurling doesn’t try to underplay the extent to which Sonia’s physical attractiveness was crucial to the way she moved around in these circles but equally she’s also clear that she more than held her own in discussions and debates and became something of a doyen of the literary salons. What is not open to debate is the fact that she was by this point confident, opinionated, strong-willed and prickly when it was called for.

But to be honest, her emotional private life was always a bit of a mess and seemed to revolve around the whims and fancies of married men. The web of fascination she was able to weave over middle-aged writers and artists was remarkable and Orwell’s own obsession with her is testimony to that. By the time she finally agreed to marry Orwell she had already had major affairs with artists and writers, British and French, all of which had ended more or less badly. Even to her friends, the decision to accept Orwell’s final marriage proposal seemed an extraordinarily impulsive thing to do.

Once she was widowed this urge towards a kind of self-destructive impulsiveness in her emotional life came through in her second, terrible marriage to Michael Pitt-Rivers, who was gay and openly so. Jeremy Lewis writing in The Observer when he reviewed the book in 2006 says this of Sonia:

 Her later life makes for melancholy reading. She was briefly married to a rich homosexual landowner, Michael Pitt-Rivers; she shunted between London and Paris, drank too much, grew blowsier and, with typical generosity, organised a whip-round for Connolly’s widow and children after he’d left them wretchedly short of funds.

And I think this quotation really does capture the ambiguity of Sonia Orwell – often very difficult to like as a person she still had an underlying generosity of spirit that saved her from becoming the sort of comic-book villain that some would like to cast her as.

You’ll get copies of Spurling’s book in paperback or hardback for significantly less than a tenner. Necessary reading for all Orwell fans but also if you’re interested in the inter-war literary scene in Britain and France.

 

Terry Potter

January 2018